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Transport - general

Feb 1, 2016

Will politicians ever do anything real about cars in our cities?

Politicians like to give the impression they're taking action to prepare our cities for growth but it's mostly rhetoric; they continue to avoid taking serious action to address the role of cars


BITRE mode share
Share (%) of total passenger kilometres by mode in Australia’s capital cities, 1976/77 to 2013/14 (source data: BITRE)

The start of an election year is a good time to take stock of the infrastructure challenges facing Australian cities. It’s especially important given that by 2051 Sydney and Melbourne might each have to accommodate a population of around eight million.

At least in terms of transport, the outlook appears at first glance to be quite promising. Travel by private vehicles has fallen consistently in per capita terms in Australian cities since what might well prove to be “peak car” back in 2003/04.

Urban public transport patronage on the other hand is growing in line with or faster than population. The level of service offered to passengers in most cities has improved substantially and investment in new infrastructure, both real and promised, is increasing. (1)

So what about outcomes? What’s been achieved in terms of the important goal of shifting travel in our capital cities from private vehicles to public transport?

The answer, as the first exhibit clearly shows, is hardly anything. Private vehicles currently account for a whopping 90% of all kilometres of motorised passenger travel in Australia’s capital cities.

Yes, 90%. And that share’s been pretty well flat for the last 37 years. (2)

There are differences between cities but they’re not great. The private vehicle share is lowest in Australia’s largest and by far its densest city, Sydney (86%), and highest in Canberra and Hobart (96%). At 89% and 92% respectively, Melbourne and Brisbane are close to the average.

The first exhibit also shows there was a slight dip in private vehicle’s mode share from 2003/04 and a small increase in public transport’s share.

It’s not a cause for optimism, though; it’s only a one percentage point change. Moreover, car use is only falling when it’s measured in per capita terms.

While it grew much slower than population over the last ten years, car travel still increased in absolute terms by 12.1 billion kilometres (see second exhibit). That’s a lot of extra kilometres of driving that city roads have had to accommodate over the last decade.

The mode share of public transport increased by one percentage point but it’s unlikely that was primarily due to the lower rate of growth in car use.

Travel by train, tram, bus and ferry grew by a very healthy 5 billion passenger kilometres over the last ten years, but that was still considerably less than the increase in car kilometres. Over the last five years it grew by only one eighth as much as the absolute increase in car travel; in fact it too grew slower than population.

It’s likely the greater part of the fall in per capita car travel is explained by structural factors – such as the ageing population, later marriage, more time in tertiary education, and improved data communications – rather than by travellers substituting public transport for cars.

The reality is that policy has done virtually nothing to reduce the ongoing – and increasing – use of cars. There’s very little to suggest that significant policy-induced change in car use is in the offing.

Politicians like to highlight the construction of new public transport mega projects as evidence they’re on top of the task of preparing the nation’s major cities for anticipated growth.

These projects are mostly necessary and desirable for improving the usefulness of public transport in capital cities, but they’ll make only a small dent at best in the use of cars.

It’s almost certain that other than in some select areas like the city centre, cars will continue to dominate our metropolitan areas for a long time yet; driverless cars are likely to extend that domination.

Politicians prefer to avoid acknowledging this reality because managing car use is politically difficult; it’s easier to pretend that new rail projects will have a big impact on urban motoring.

We certainly need to improve public transport, but we can’t continue to blithely ignore the mode that accounts for nine tenths of motorised travel in Australia’s relatively low density capital cities. We can’t continue under the illusion cars are magically going to go away or at least fall dramatically out of favour.

Of course cars provide many benefits but they also come with disadvantages. Governments need to take serious action to ameliorate the severe problems – like congestion, pollution, emissions, injury, noise and poor amenity – associated with high levels of car use in big cities.

There’s a suite of regulatory and taxation measures – like congestion pricing, vehicle fuel/emissions standards, land use controls – available to politicians to manage car use. They’re politically difficult actions but they’re the only plausible way to make a significant impact on the way we’ll use cars over the next 30 years or so.

If the Prime Minister is serious about action rather than rhetoric, he’ll take the lead in broadening the discussion about the future of cities to include strong measures to “tame” the use of private vehicles in cities.


  1. When he was Minister for Infrastructure, Anthony Albanese liked to tell voters that the Rudd/Gillard governments “committed more funding to urban public transport than all our predecessors since Federation combined”.
  2. The charts are based on updated data prepared by the Bureau of infrastructure, transport and regional economics (BITRE), Australian infrastructure statistics, yearbook 2015. Private transport is passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles and motor cycles. Public transport is trains, light rail/trams, buses, and ferries.
Growth in passenger kilometres in Australian capital cities by mode (source: BITRE)
Growth in passenger kilometres in Australian capital cities by mode (source data: BITRE)


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28 thoughts on “Will politicians ever do anything real about cars in our cities?

  1. Tim Walsh

    Peak hour traffic is dominated by cars with only one occupant, which is obviously a massive waste of space. There is another solution to this problem that would increase the capacity of existing roads – single seater cars. They are much narrower than existing cars and can therefore lane share. Adoption of these cars (Tango, Colibri are examples) would increase the capacity of roads significantly.

  2. Teddy

    There is one major project underway presently will drastically encourage PT usage over cars. It has bi-partisan political support too.

    That’s the Sydney Metro, the biggest public transport infrastructure project in Australia. You Melbourne lot can just drool with envy, not only will we have a 21st century metro service the equal of anything in Europe and modern Asia (driverless trains every 2 minutes) but the whole scheme has been tied to residential development. What that means is more and more people will be able to live near a metro station – and, if they choose to, do so without owning a car.

    I’ll confess, I am over-egging the pudding a little. It is (for now) just one line – from the booming outer NW suburbs through the CBD and on through the NSW as far as Bankstown. But it’s a start, a fresh and ambitious hope for Sydney, and clearly aims to be the beginning of a much bigger network.

    In my earlier post above I complained about people (my neighbors in my Greens-voting inner west electorate, my friends and co-workers) all saying one thing and doing another – claiming to support PT but in fact demanding (with their votes) facilities for their own cars. We can all rationalize our actions of course, and do so effortlessly with sleight-of-hand arguments in casual conversation. But politicians should not be allowed that luxury.

    Yes there is bi-partisan political support for the Metro in NSW – which, just btw, is aiming to run totally on renewable energy. But there is one party in NSW opposed to it. When I say this, people refuse to believe me, but it is true: The NSW Greens.

    Populism, cynicism, lack of vision, cowardice, pandering to vested interests is par for the course for politicians, of course I know that. But it has to be said, some are worse than others.

  3. Dylan Nicholson

    To be fair though Waffler, the population density of, e.g. Melbourne CBD (and immediate surrounds) must have at least doubled in the last 15 years, and yet there are certainly nothing like double the number cars on the road there.
    And I’m sure people have worried about the sames sort of problems for decades, both here and in rapidly growing cities overseas. My biggest concern is that so far governments have continued to opt for the politically short-term-expedient option of building more and more far-flung car-dependent suburbs.

  4. Waffler

    Sorry – last bit was supposed to be:

    We need to find some way to develop a plan, get consensus and then convince the voters and politicians that we need to adopt this new future NOW and start working towards it – not waiting until the whole place comes to grinding halt and then trying to retrofit it. Maybe we need to reinstate the MMBW to recreate the 1954 Melbourne plan – and that took about 5 years and 30-40 staff for a city of 1.5m people.

  5. Waffler

    The worst part of all this is that we know population growth in Melbourne and Sydney is heading towards both cities being about 8m people by the 2050’s – about double what’s here now.

    If you think about what a doubling in population, jobs and travel will look like there is no way any vaguely rational person can envisage a future where there are twice as many cars on the road – even if we spend lots of money between now and then. The space, cost, environmental effects and nimbyism will prevent the addition of the sorts of road space that would be required.

    OK – if there is no physical, financial or practical way for our cities to work as “business as usual on steroids” we need to invent a whole new city design – and this is more than just transport. Jobs and services closer to home (if average trip lengths halved, we could get twice as many cars on the road!).

    The harder part will be to do the hard grind to develop a detailed and robust plan. Evidently, Government’s are clearly unwilling to invest the resources and political capital in doing this properly rather than printing a “plan” full of vague platitudes. And of course the media and electors demand instant gratification which doesn’t give any government the time to do it porperly, even if they wanted to. the are get consensus and then convince the voters and politicians that we need to adopt this new future NOW and start working towards it – not waiting until the whole place comes to grinding halt and then trying to retrofit it.

  6. Dylan Nicholson

    AD, honestly none of those, and I’m not sure if Australia really has many examples of the sort of neighbourhood I’d consider ideal – the closest I’ve found have been various European cities & towns. There a pockets of our bigger cities that are not too bad, but realistically if you live there you still wind up spending a significant fraction of your life navigating the utterly automobile-dominated parts of the rest of the cities.

  7. Tony Morton

    In light of some comments here, it may be worth sharing the PTUA’s take on the popularity of car use:

    (BTW James, I’m flattered but happy not to be a guest blogger here: as PTUA President I’ve got a platform already 🙂

  8. boscombe

    I have to agree with Teddy, as I’m a Greens voter who wants a lot more spent on roads – bridges, tunnels etc. I don’t want any congestion charges, but I do want the fuel tax to increase by 50c a litre with the money to be split between roads and PT. Also car registrations should increase a lot depending on emissions.

    Like most commenters I’ve lived in cities where I didn’t need a car, but in Perth, I need a car and I always will.

  9. Saugoof

    Dylan Nicholson #18:

    That’s an argument that always “intrigues” me when people complain about noise from wind farms. You’d rarely ever even hear wind turbines over the noise from all the nearby roads. But noise from roads is mostly just accepted whereas other noise gets people riled up.

    I used to work in Highett. At the moment there are a lot of apartments being built there, right on the six-lane Nepean Highway. This is one of Melbourne’s busiest roads with very heavy traffic noise pretty much 24 hours a day. You’d barely be able to open a window and still hear your TV. I don’t know how people put up with that.

  10. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #18:

    Interesting decision. What are your choices for a walkable neighbourhood? (1) inner city (2) suburban centre e.g. Doncaster Hill (3) country town (4) outer suburbs, although I’m not sure if any of the dense areas shown in outer suburban structure plans (e.g. Toolern) have been completely built out yet.

    Still lots of cars in most inner city areas (e.g. Clifton Hill) and in country towns; and of course very expensive in the former esp for a family.

    Might not be to your taste, but the most pedestrian oriented location outside the city centre is probably something like Doncaster Hill where apartments/town houses are directly adjacent to a large hard-top shopping centre (mall) that’s completely free of cars (provided you don’t enter via the parking lots).

  11. Dylan Nicholson

    I have to say I went for a brief walk around the neighbourhood last night and I was struck, as I frequently am, at just how horribly noisy and disruptive roads and cars are. No question they serve some (currently) irreplaceable purposes, but the only reason there are so many of them about everywhere all the time is because that’s how governments have funded and built our cities over the last few decades.
    Not everywhere in the world is like this, and it doesn’t need to be that way here either. If I ever decide I’m ready to live somewhere else, the first thing I’m looking for, cliched as it sounds, is a town/neighbourhood designed primarily for people, rather than their cars.

  12. Saugoof

    “Politicians like to highlight the construction of new public transport mega projects as evidence they’re on top of the task of preparing the nation’s major cities for anticipated growth.”
    My experience has been more that they like to “talk” about public transport projects but then end up building roads anyway. Or when they invest in public transport projects it’s actually something that benefits car travel more than PT, like the removal of level crossings in Victoria.

  13. Alan Davies

    Tony Morton #11:

    On the topic you raise, here’s an article I posted in 2014 which has a chart showing per capita public and private travel for each capital city from 1976/77 to 2011/12 – Will we drive a whole lot less in the future?

  14. James

    Can Tony Morton be a guest writer to tease out some of the things he’s found? Looks like there is more to the story.

  15. Norman Hanscombe

    And, as always, the Crikey Censor isn’t happy with this being raised.

  16. Norman Hanscombe

    As has been pointed out time and again on these threads, there are plenty of intelligent politicians who know what should be done, but they know also that whoever tries to do what needs to be done will be overwhelmed by political opportunists, the more influential of whom aren’t necessarily elected to Political Office.

  17. Oz (Horst) Kayak

    “If the Prime Minister is serious about action rather than rhetoric, he’ll take the lead in broadening the discussion about the future of cities to include strong measures to “tame” the use of private vehicles in cities.” Is a fine concluding remark …However…

    Yes “tame” the use of private vehicles in cities” But for what purpose?
    If we start with a model that considers the health of people living in urban regions, what does the article then imply? More kilometres and more vehicles is health benefitting to an urban region? There are many who believe that time sitting in cars has negative health impact and eventually reduces the quality of life years left of an urban dweller. God forbid if it is over an even longer extended life expectancy.
    A paradigm shift in travel behaviour modelling is required.
    There is a need to model and quantify how much mode shifting is required that will significantly reduce the time sitting in vehicles.
    Our guess is that integrated land-use and transport system planning can achieve better quality of life span outcomes.
    Suburbs such as Southbank, achieve multiple higher rates of active transport time allocation.
    BTW so do parts of Brunswick, etc. Examples such as Brunswick. St Kilda and similar are normally not considered CBD or CAD.
    There is need to rate or score the 321+. suburbs of the Melbourne Metropolis by use of travel time allocation, meaning, time NOT spent sitting cars to meet their normal out-of-home living needs. Active transport and time use needs to be more meaningfully modelled and included in all statistics such as those forming the basis of the article “Will politicians ever do anything real about cars in our cities?”

  18. Tony Morton

    Alan #10: Indeed, there’s a deeper story to be told here. I naturally agree that within the boundaries of our capital cities it’s realistic to aim for public transport mode shares of 20-30% of motorised travel with policy measures the public will by and large support. (Toronto in the early 1990s had 25%, and we had a 20% goal in Melbourne a decade ago but failed to back it up with actual policy muscle.)

    To try and get more of a sense of why the capital city aggregate mode shares are so flat, I went to BITRE’s Information Sheet 60 which is the actual source for the figures. There’s some really interesting stuff buried in here, which bears out the need to seek local explanations.

    It turns out in particular that number of public transport trips per capita – one of the statistics most directly related to mode share – has followed quite different trends in different cities. In Melbourne, PT use per capita has gone up by 20% since 2005, before which it had gone nowhere for decades. In Perth, PT trips per capita bottomed out around 1990 and has gone up 50% since then. But that’s basically it as far as per-capita growth is concerned: the other capital cities have rates the same or less than in the 1980s. Sydney in particular has seen a slow declining trend in per-capita PT trips that appears not to have abated (although it’s been somewhat balanced by an increase in average trip length).

    So I think we see here the reason for the flat overall figures despite a couple of stand-out successes. Melbourne and Perth between them account for about 40% of overall public transport use in Australian capital cities, while Sydney alone accounts for 45%. The failure to boost PT use outside Melbourne and Perth, against a background rate of car travel that has only abated in the last decade, has cancelled out any gain that might have been seen in overall mode share.

    So what might we learn from Melbourne and Perth? It seems pretty limited in Melbourne’s case: the entire growth occurred in the period 2005-2010 and seems to be due to demographics and employment trends rather than any policy initiative. Perth’s growth on the other hand has been more sustained since the early 1990s and is readily explained as a response to service initiatives such as new rail lines. Certainly the urban geography of Perth is not otherwise conducive to high rates of public transport use.

  19. Alan Davies

    Tony Morton #9:

    Jarrett Walker is concerned that US national statistics include many cities where transit doesn’t work well because of low densities; he emphasises looking at cities that are better suited to transit.

    In Australia, our larger capitals are relatively dense compared to most US cities; moreover five of the six State capitals have developed rail systems. Note that cars nevertheless dominate in all our capitals – even in relatively dense Sydney they account for 86% of all passenger kilometres.

    Beware the ecological fallacy; of course some small areas (e.g. the city centre) will have lower car use, as noted in the article. There’ll also be some minority trip purposes – like the journey to work – where cars are less competitive. But policy-makers shouldn’t be selective; their obligation is to look at the entire picture.

  20. Tony Morton

    Interestingly, Jarrett Walker in the US blogged just today making the observation: “Never, ever pay any attention to national statistics about transit, because transit works or doesn’t for entirely local reasons.” Basically, it’s always going to be difficult to detect progress on mode shift from coarse statistics like this, because both achievable and achieved mode shift varies drastically from place to place. Some parts of Melbourne and Sydney already have upward of 30% of motorised journeys to work by PT, and this could readily be replicated at other times and places with positive policy measures (that our governments are yet to seriously take up). In some other parts of the country, lifting mode share above 10% will be a much greater challenge.

    The more interesting question surely has to be, why do our governments continue to prioritise spending on roads when every opinion poll reveals that a majority of the population favour public transport expenditure over road expenditure? This is not simply a case where governments are chasing votes by following the majority.

    It’s certainly also true that operating expenditure on public transport by State governments is high relative to mode share, particularly in rail-based systems. But the reason for this is something we’ve known for years: we target the bulk of our public transport resources to peak hour travel but make precious little effort to encourage public transport use outside the peaks, leaving these systems drastically underutilised relative to the road networks. Systems in other parts of the world, like medium-density Vancouver, that make more of an effort to encourage use at all times of the day by larger segments of the population, have an average expenditure per passenger much less than is typical in Australia.

    But let’s not rely too heavily on State budget figures alone for comparing road expenditure and public transport expenditure. It’s an Australian peculiarity that there are three levels of government spending money on roads, but only one spending on public transport. There are myriad cases of fully State-funded bus routes running on roads the State does not fund at all (but which carry over 100 times as many cars as buses, by design). Without taking due care it’s easy to count the money spent on the buses but miss the money the local council spends maintaining the road for all those cars. There are also gross distortions like the fact that in Victoria, ‘competitive neutrality’ somehow dictates that public transport operating expenditure must have added to it a $1.5 billion notional ‘Capital Asset Charge’ but the road budget need not.

  21. Roger Clifton

    Cars? Tax ’em!

    If every major access to the inner city is a tollway, then price pressures would decide how much traffic is quite enough, and when it is time to develop industry elsewhere.

  22. Dylan Nicholson

    (And further, if the government simply halved spending on building/maintaining roads for private motorised vehicular use, it wouldn’t be very long before the roads we have now would be unusable and people would have little choice but to move to alternative forms of transport. I’m not suggesting that as a serious solution, but it’s certainly not infeasible to decide that for all newly developed areas, roads would be given only absolute-minimum funding and other forms of transport would be given top priority. Provided it’s done well, you would see some huge changes in patterns of usage.

  23. Dylan Nicholson

    AD, I just don’t believe that – if the government is spending as much on a mode of transport only used for 10% of travel and requiring a tiny fraction of the infrastructure of a mode of transport used for the remaining 90%, then there’s something very wrong.
    Actually even in Japan the government almost spends far more on roads than PT, but much of the PT is privately owned/operated and runs at a profit.

  24. Norman Hanscombe

    Congrats, Teddy, for the sort of rational analysis rarely seen from the Crikey Cabal.

  25. Teddy

    Why won’t politicians do anything? Because we won’t let them.

    Because every household in my Greens voting environmentally aware electorate that has two adults in it also has two cars. Sometimes more.

    Because when a public transport project was proposed for my electorate, our Greens MP held rallies opposing it (there were properties affected!)

    Because every inner city Nimby issue where I live (inner west Sydney) revolves around car use – the resident’s “right” to park and travel around as freely as they want. All politicians, including Greens politicians (especially Greens politicians!) instinctively rally to to the cause of the car!

    Because all politicians know that anything at all to hindering our desire to drive and drive and drive wherever we damn well like as cheaply as possible is electoral suicide.

    Tell me I am wrong. It is all our fault.

    Ps. My two adult household only has one vehicle. It is an area well serviced by public transport. Amongst all our neighbours and friends, we are unique. Some consider us eccentric. Many of the elderly ones haven’t even bothered to apply for a Gold Opal card ($2.50 for unlimited PT travel all day). They will always prefer to drive until the day they die.

    Maybe the planet will beat them to it.

  26. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #1:

    I suppose I should’ve anticipated that reaction – of course I’m referring to the failure to take action to deal with the negatives associated with cars.

    But on the issue you raise, it would be useful to see past, current and projected numbers on public sector expenditure on roads vs public transport. A few years ago John Stanley argued that they were about the same in NSW and Vic at the time.

  27. Chris Cathel

    I suspect that cities that developed after the spread of the automobile are difficult to refit for public transport so taht not much happens until roads become so congested that restructuring is forced.

  28. Dylan Nicholson

    “but we can’t continue to blithely ignore the mode that accounts for nine tenths of motorised travel”

    Who’s been blithely ignoring it? Our governments at all levels have actively, for the last 40 years, spent far far more on enabling private motorised transport than any other form of getting around.


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